Today more than ever, people are watching what they say and are paying attention to who is around them when they speak. Before mentioning something that might sound controversial to others, it must be carefully crafted so as not to hurt anyones feelings. In many cases, it might seem easier to avoid the topic altogether; the last thing anyone wants is to be exposed for expressing their opinion because it offended someone. But what kind of message does this send to youth, if they are taught to hold back their opinions and to only express their thoughts in a way that adheres to the people around them? More importantly, what impact does this have on preparing students for life after graduation? With the prevalence of social media in today’s society, kids hold the power of creating an online attack against someone if they find something subjectively offensive or uncomfortable. Because of this, university professors are walking on eggshells and they’re forced to cater their teaching to the most sensitive student. To avoid public outcry, argumentative topics are being avoided and diverse perspectives are not being discussed. In turn, students are bound to close minded thinking and intellectual homogeneity rather than learning critical thinking skills that are necessary for conflict management and self regulation. Therefore, universities should encourage emotionally discomforting topics rather than avoid them, to equip students to face real world situations.
A child’s ability to emotionally self-regulate suffers when they are shielded from adversity by their parents. Emotional self-regulation is the ability to manage one’s emotions and behaviour in response to upsetting stimuli, which is a valuable skill to learn in early stages of development (Kalavana et al. 2010). There have been many improvements made from the past, however the message kids are receiving today is consistent: the world is a dangerous place, but adults will do whatever it takes to protect you from harm. This has a substantial impact on a child’s development. It’s important to note that childhood has changed drastically over the past few generations; there is less unsupervised play, less expectations for kids to take care of themselves, and if a child is upset by something, it has become the norm for kids to complain to their parents and have their parents handle it for them. Subsequently, children aren’t learning how to control their own reactions, and instead, their tendency to resort to an emotional outburst is being reinforced (Voisin et al. 2019). A common theme among modern parents is the idea of ‘helicopter’ parenting.
Helicopter parenting causes children to learn less from their experiences, and hinders their academic performance. This is a parent that focuses on making sure their child succeeds and avoids failure or rejection at all costs, often solving the child’s problems at work, school, and the playground (Ashdown & Faherty, 2015). For example, consider a student that puts little effort into a school project, and receives a bad grade. If they have helicopter parents, they learn over time that if they complain to their parents, in an effort to protect their child’s self esteem the parent might speak with the teacher to improve the grade. In doing this, the child misses the opportunity to learn how to cope with the frustration they feel from receiving a bad grade. Instead, they use their parents to fix their problems, and miss out on a meaningful lesson. In other words, children need to learn that if they don’t put an effort into their work, they won’t receive the reward. In line with this, Voisin et al (2019) study found emotional regulation to be associated with academic aptitude. Therefore, not only does helicopter parenting eliminate children’s opportunities to manage their emotions, it affects their achievements in school. Skipping over this lesson produces a young adult that is entitled, fragile and ill prepared for life’s adversities which has implications in university and beyond.
Social media plays a crucial role in contributing to the fragility of youth and this is affecting what can be said in the classroom. Rates of mental illness in young adults are rising (Holmes & Silvestri, 2016), which in part could be attributed to an increase of awareness and better diagnosis. However, psychological distress among university students in particular has seen an increase of reports by 49% compared to five years ago (Holmes & Silvestri, 2016). Interestingly, the increase in reports of emotional crises coincides with the emergence of social media platforms (Thorstad & Wolff, 2019). While this does not prove direct causation, it has been shown that social media can have a negative effect on subjective well-being, self esteem and body image on young adults (Verduyn et al. 2017; Mills et al. 2018; McNamara, 2019). Moreover, technology has made it considerably easier to connect with one another, while also simultaneously changing how people go about sharing moral judgements and political opinions. Young people are more engaged with, current events and news stories For these reasons, it is important to examine its impacts the impacts of social media in a classroom setting.
Specifically, social media is causing a fundamental shift of power between teachers and students, drastically changing the approach teachers take in educating students. University students are beginning to realize the influence they possess in being a part of certain online communities. For instance, if a comment is raised by a professor that strikes a student as off-putting or offensive, they can immediately report about it on social media and stir up an online mob against them, regardless of the context or the professors intentions of the comment. This was evident in an incident at Wilfred Laurier where a teaching assistant was fired for showing her class 2 video clips on gender identity and expression (National Post, 2017). The T.A. claims she was trying to facilitate a discussion on the matter, by presenting both sides of an argument. However, as a result of a mis-representative post to social media and an anonymous complaint to the school board, she was reprimanded for violating the school’s sexual violence policy. Instances like this affect student-teacher relationships in an unfortunate way. That is, students learn that if they find something to be remotely controversial, they have the power to hold the teacher accountable by depicting them as toxic or problematic. Thus, educators fear what could happen to their reputation and career should they accidentally offend a someone. Students are more fragile, and this certainly has impacted how university faculty interact with them.
In fact, universities are developing students with extra-thin skin which negatively affects their ability to handle uncomfortable situations post graduation. Students will inevitably encounter controversial or insensitive remarks. While it is right to raise questions and initiate discussions on these sensitive topics, they are stifled before even reaching the classroom, as students and teachers fear the potential backlash they may suffer should they say something that someone else finds upsetting. What’s worse, is that universities are fostering this new climate, and this has an effect on what subjects are being taught, even as a means for promoting debate and discussion (Burch et al. 2018). The problem is that this culture reinforces students to believe that there is nothing to learn from opinions that make them uncomfortable. Yet, after graduation they are bound to come across ideas of which they disagree with, only they won’t know how to properly address this conflict. Consider the repercussions this might have for a students future career.
Good conflict management skills lead to longer, more successful professional careers. It is not unusual for co-workers to have differences in work goals, ethics, and attitudes. Nonetheless, these differences often create disagreements that permanently affect co-worker relationships (Harris, 2016). Depending on how these conflicts are managed, can determine one’s feelings towards their work (Skogstad et al. 2018). For example, when others opinions, values and ideas are dismissed as offensive or aggressive, this disrupts the potential for positive compromise and mutual respect. Whereas conflict management leads to creativity and positive reciprocal understanding (Zhu & Anagondahalli, 2017). The latter, contributes to higher workplace enjoyment, and longer lasting careers (Skogstad et al. 2018). Therefore, Universities are doing students an intellectual disservice by shielding them from uncomfortable ideas and not allowing conflict management skills to develop. When students experience a clash of opinions in classroom settings rather than shutting them out, they learn priceless conflict management skills to benefit their future careers.
Furthermore, students’ emotional reasoning shields them from experiencing different perspectives in class discussions, which hinders intellectual progress. Emotional reasoning is defined as allowing ones feelings to guide their interpretations of reality; in other words, if you feel a certain way, it must be true (Burch et al. 2018). However, our subjective feelings are not foolproof guides and can often lead to irrational reactions and beliefs (Singer & Benassi, 1981). Moreover, this form of reasoning has alarming implications in a classroom setting. It is important to note, that there is merit to one’s subjective feelings of being offended, in particular if it pertains to mental illness related trauma. Nonetheless, this awareness is causing an over correction on the matter and campuses have embraced emotional reasoning from students to the point that it is negatively affecting what students are learning. That is, claims of being offended have shifted beyond subjective feelings. They now carry a public charge that the speaker has committed an objective wrong-doing which warrants immediate correction or else face punishment from authority. Students recognize claiming to be offended as an unbeatable “trump card”. Namely, they learn that their emotional reasoning can be used as a weapon, reinforcing an upward trend of hypersensitivity (Burch et al. 2018). For example, should a professor raise discussion about an emotionally uncomfortable topic, a students complaint that they were offended by this topic goes uncontested and the professor undergoes investigation putting their career and reputation at risk. This negatively affects how professors approach their students. In light of these incidents, professors must now cater their lessons to the most sensitive student. Regardless of how the majority of students feel about a discussion, so long as one student feels offended, they can take action to reprimand the professor. As a result, faculty perceive the easiest way to stay out of trouble is to avoid potentially upsetting material altogether. This restricts all students from experiencing diverse viewpoints, and limits professors to teaching generally agreeable topics.
This intellectual homogeneity has a negative impact on students critical thinking ability. Critical thinking is the process of actively analyzing, and evaluating information gathered from observation or experience, and is associated with higher academic achievement across multiple subjects (Longo, 2018). To progress one’s knowledge of the world they must be exposed to multiple perspectives (Vogl et al. 2019), as intellectual diversity is integral to the development of critical thinking skills (Stanovich & Toplak, 2019). When students are consistently limited to only hearing one perspective on a specific topic, this encourages close minded thinking and leaves no room for class arguments to promote others viewpoints. Furthermore, Rohmah’s (2012) research found disagreements among peers in a classroom setting to be the most important factor in facilitating learning. Therefore, not only is it harmful to shield students from emotionally uncomfortable topics, it is also necessary for students to experience them in order to promote learning.
It could be argued, on the other hand, that there exists certain topics that when brought up trigger negative emotional responses to the point that reactivates post traumatic stress and anxiety. In one study, Webb & Widseth (1991) discussed the fact that a variety of university students can become emotionally overwhelmed in revisiting subjects that open past emotional wounds. They claim these students require psychotherapeutic help. Additionally, the tendency to resort to emotional reasoning has been associated with negative emotions from past traumatic events, which can inhibit concentration (Engelhard et al. 2015). For these reasons, it is possible that encouraging uncomfortable topics in discussions can inflict mental damage and as a result hinders students ability to learn. Exposing students to sensitive topics who are harbouring serious memories of trauma and anxiety is completely unethical and they should seek necessary treatment.
Having said that, helping people avoid their fears is a misguided approach to improvement. Instead of working to avoid a normal life, classroom discussions provide the opportunity for habituation to occur in a safe environment as opposed to the potential threats they can pose off campus and later in life. For example, an in class discussion on abuse won’t likely result in actual abuse, it is a chance to alter the associations that are causing discomfort. Consider a study involving breast cancer patients. Despite the psychological distress caused by fear of recurrence, patients exposed to this fear by discussion showed significant reduction in depressive, anxious and post-traumatic symptoms (Cheli et al. 2019). Moreover, when students are exposed to emotionally uncomfortable topics in class and nothing bad happens as a result, their fear is no longer being reinforced. Over time a new association is formed without fear and this association extinguishes the majority of previous anxieties and distress. This is an example of exposure therapy, in which the amygdala abolishes old connections associated with fear, and replaces them with new neural connections that associate them with safety and normalcy (Durosky et al. 2018). In this way, students are able to encounter their fears and anxieties in an environment that poses no real threat, as a means to overcome what may be holding them back from learning.
In light of the negative affects that restricting speech poses on students ability to experience new perspectives and learn critical thinking, there are available strategies to help students manage their emotions. In addition to teaching students to be mindful of others opinions and self-esteem, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) educates students on how to thrive in a world that is full of potential offenses.
Shielding students from words, ideas and discussions is harmful for students learning, inhibits the development of critical thinking, and inadequately prepares them for the workplace. Instead, universities should raise awareness of the importance to have balance between freedom of speech and protecting students from feeling unwelcome. Rather than trying to force the world to conform to their desires, students should be encouraged to master their habits of thought. Considering the rise of mental illness, implementing cognitive behavioural therapy techniques in educational institutions is a viable solution to aid in controlling emotional reasoning and promote critical thinking. Furthermore, this form of thinking advocates for preparing students how to thrive in a world full of potentially discomforting emotional situations. Failure to address these issues continues the trend towards intellectual homogeneity, and prevents advancements in our knowledge of the world.
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